Tenderness is a protest campaign against institutionalised amnesia.
by Maria Theuma
Image: Still from “Curtis Breaks Up With Amy | Love Island 2019”, colorised.
By the time this is published, the “Love Island” final will have aired and one of its couples will have been crowned its winners. Since it’s broadcast six days a week for two whole months, I’ll have watched a total of 57 (yes) hours of the show—that is, not counting the extra hours of its spinoff live studio show “Aftersun,” together with the total amount of time I’ll have spent online trying to consume as much as possible of the content that permeates all the media around it, where the complexities of love and conflict of each season are analysed and poeticised, like an epic romance for our jaded generation.
One episode showed contestant Amy Hart tell her ex-“half-boyfriend,” contestant Curtis Pritchard, that, given how distraught she’d been feeling since their split, she’d decided that she was going to quit the show. There was a certain air of stoicism about Amy, as she sat opposite her ex, on the rooftop of the Mallorcan villa where the drama of the show unfolds every year, and calmly communicated to him her decision. One Twitter user observed how, in spite of her pain, she was “breathtakingly graceful.”
As I looked on from the remoteness of my living room, something caught my attention. At one point her voice wavered and it nearly seemed like she was just about to lose her collectedness, and break down, defeated. It was just one sentence that her shaking voice seemed to have difficulty uttering and, to me, it defined the most emotional moment of the show’s current season, if not the entire five year-long run. “I hope you find someone that makes you so, so happy,” she told Curtis. Take it out of its context and it almost seems like a throwaway line, a bit too mawkish even. In actuality, it’s what every human experience of a breakup boils down to. An enigmatic tenderness at the crux of two important hearts splintering apart, in six syllables. I hope you find someone.
One October evening back in 2017, I stood in a crowd and watched singer Lorde introduce a song that she was just about to perform on stage: “Hard Feelings.” “It’s about that very specific phenomenon that should probably have a name by now…” she said, “the phenomenon of that moment when you’re ending something with somebody but you’re just not ready to get out of the car yet so it’s not real. You’re like, if I don’t leave I don’t have to go on with the rest of my life. We’ll just sit in this moment together.” I cried, not entirely sure who or what I was getting upset over, which personal experience of heartbreak Lorde’s words were tapping into. It felt like she was reading my palm. “Please could you be tender?” the opening lines of her song followed, exquisite and devastating.
Amy was tender with Curtis. On our television screens, we witnessed that tenderness in her tearful goodbye. Perhaps this was it, the moment that, as Lorde had claimed, we had no idea what to call. It seemed to be suspended between a “before-ness” and an “after-ness”—and weren’t these two concepts, in their temporal fixity, essentially uncomplicated to comprehend? From love to failed love, what had been and what would remain. But what about that instant, when Amy faced Curtis, told him she had to leave, all the while sitting there, not leaving?
In his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” English Romantic poet John Keats describes a series of classical scenes that he imagines depicted on ancient pottery. At one point, he zooms in on the image of two lovers clasped in each other’s arms, just about to kiss. “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” he writes, enthralled by the eternal pause in which the lovers seemed to be locked in, inches away from kissing—never actually kissing. They’re destined to have their love remain forever unfulfilled, but they’re also spared the disappointment that sets once the joy of that fulfillment inevitably fades.
I was sixteen when I first read Keats’s poetry and I’ve been trying to pull these specific lines apart ever since. These lovers—they’ll remain bound to each other, they’ll remain bound to a temporal stasis for all eternity. Even now, it’s all deeply perplexing to me. How can anticipation be so resplendent? What’s so exceptional about being neither here nor there, somewhat lost in the vastness of each other’s emotional landscapes? These lovers revel in the instant before the end. Perhaps it’s not a moment per se, but the moment before the moment. There’s a certain intensity in the act lingering and there seems to be a delicate wisdom to be gained if we willingly linger long enough, like a star-sparkled energy that we consciously and willingly can soak in. “Let’s give it a minute before we admit that we’re through,” Lorde pleads to her ex-lover in her song.
I would like to think that somehow, somewhere, in the universe of Keats’s poem, Amy and Curtis are still at the “Love Island” villa’s very first coupling ceremony, waiting for their turn to “couple up.” Wanting to couple up. It might not offer the Arcadian bliss that the Grecian urn’s scenery promises, but a coupling up would open up the possibility of finding love on the show’s terms—one step closer to having their love declared the winner of 2019’s “Love Island.” However, one wouldn’t want to be too categorical about ruling out any sense of the idyllic from the show’s setting. It has not escaped the attention of the show’s commentators that, as an isolated paradise, the show finds its literary forebears both in the Biblical Eden and in the archetypal island narrative where castaways are washed ashore and human civilisation is required to reset and begin anew.
While the Amy and Curtis goodbye episode was airing, a friend texted me. “i can SOOO relate,” she wrote. I could too. The whole thing was reported to have left viewers in tears. People were applying the framework of the story to their own broken hearts, like a skeleton key. Maybe it’s because most of us have had to come to terms with the liability of letting go of a lost love at some point in our lives. Maybe those of us who hadn’t, in that moment, realised that none of our hearts were safe.
“Love Island” is a BAFTA-winning dating/reality television show that’s been on the air since 2015. The format is quite straightforward—for two months, every summer, a dozen or so young men and women—or, as they are referred to by the omniscient male voiceover that narrates each episode, “Islanders”—enter a villa in Mallorca where, from the very first episode, they are required to “couple up” on sight.
There are, of course, rules to be followed: no contact with the outside world, everyone must sleep in a big room together (with each couple sharing a bed), and their daily source of entertainment only includes some gym equipment, a pool to lounge by and, fundamentally, each other’s company. New Islanders are introduced into the villa every week, upsetting the gender balance, and eventually all contestants are forced to take part in a “recoupling” ceremony, where they can choose to either remain in their current couple or swap and change partners.
Every week, those who remain single after each recoupling are “eliminated and dumped from the island” (though, occasionally, the producers allow the public to weigh in to vote people off, too). In the final week, the surviving couples face a public vote that determines which of them gets to win the final £50,000 prize. As of 2018, “Love Island” is ITV2’s most-watched show ever.
Anyone who follows “Love Island” every year as devotedly as I do knows that the viewing experience of the show is inseparable from the communal following that it generates online. Coming at a particular time when British politics have taken a peculiar turn and a post-“#metoo” sensibility marks the debates about gender all around, “Love Island” provides us with plenty of raw material to which we can apply our growing sense of millennial enlightenment.
The show has mainstreamed several complex debates and created space for important conversations—even when these conversations focused on the regressive aspects of the show and raised justifiable concerns about its compulsory heteronormativity and damaging portrayal of social conventions. The show has been called out for its inappropriate treatment of sexism, toxic masculinity, gaslighting and, most crucially, lack of diversity. On the other hand, it has also been commended for its representation of female empowerment and friendship (which isn’t given attention on television as much as romantic relationships are).
The show has been called out for its inappropriate treatment of sexism, toxic masculinity, gaslighting and, most crucially, lack of diversity. On the other hand, it has also been commended for its representation of female empowerment and friendship (which isn’t given attention on television as much as romantic relationships are).
In a way, the pull of the show lies in how it manages to reach into the cracks of culture, making the intersection between popular culture and politics so tangible to its public that it can’t be ignored. The scale of its impact on the public imagination isn’t diminished by those who scoff at it and label it vacuous and time-consuming—and even those who do, they often express their disdain either by dismissing it huffily and performatively or by “hate-watching” it with ironic detachment and a sense of self-assurance that allows them to remain unaffected by the obvious entertainment factor of the show that those of us who side with the allegedly less intellectually sophisticated masses are more than eager to consume.
Curtis claimed that he’d had his “head turned” by newcomer Islander, Jourdan Riane. Meanwhile Amy, unaware that Curtis had been having second thoughts about their relationship, was getting ready to tell him that she had fallen in love with him. In one of the fallout episodes that followed, Curtis broke up with Amy. The camera zoomed in on the dead-eyed blankness on his face. In the tone of his voice we could detect a hint of callousness, viciousness even. Visibly distressed, Amy broke down in tears and sought off-camera therapy in the days that followed. The incident sparked hundreds of complaints to Ofcom, the UK government-approved regulatory and competition broadcasting authority.
By some measures, what Amy went through at the hands of Curtis can be described as the coming-of-age story of every girl, woman and femme—the stories that I hear told again and again by the women I love most. Men hurt us and get away with it. Sometimes we get to keep the receipts. It’s the all-too-familiar narrative of the fate of the female heart in the public space.
Sometimes, those receipts are preserved for centuries. Artemisia Gentileschi, the female Baroque artist who was raped by her mentor, painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes in “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” The episode she chose to depict in her painting was from the apocryphal Book of Judith in the Old Testament, where it’s recounted how Judith used her beauty to gain her enemy leader Holofernes’s trust.
The Biblical source tells of the night on which Judith entered Holofernes’s tent, seduced him, waited for him to pass out in a drunken stupor and proceeded to decapitate him. Gentileschi’s rapist never served punishment but, in her painting, she places him at the mercy of a triumphant display of female violence. What she achieves that’s most radically powerful from this act of inscribing her trauma into her work isn’t just the masterful depiction of the gore per se but the historical erasure of her rapist’s standing as an artist—he’s been mostly forgotten from art history except for being the perpetrator of this crime.
Such an instance of strategic and judicious female violence radiates with affirmation. It celebrates rage as a reactionary tactic against a systematic type of masculine violence. But what about Amy, who couldn’t bring herself to be furious, who had her capacity to endure and move past pain broadcast and then subjected to scrutiny from all sides of the mediatic spectrum, from tabloid article to think piece. (The irony of the fact that this article is, unfortunately, guilty of contributing to that scrutiny is not lost on me.) All over social media, her agony was measured, debated, gazed at. What does this tell us about female agency and resistance and who, in the twenty-first century, ultimately gets to embody it?
In the 1990s, the slogan “Girl Power,” which is generally credited to have been invented by US punk band “Bikini Kill,” encouraged and celebrated women’s empowerment in terms of their independence, strength and capability to dismantle unjust power hierarchies through subversive methods. Violence, as a gesture of female fantasy, was embodied by a kind of punk-rock anarchy and bloodlust that became a blueprint for being a powerful woman in the world. We were given the green light to destroy with no shame, to seize power, to be unwavering in our vitriolic attack against the patriarchal establishment.
But what happens when resorting to reactionary violence brings us pain with no payoff, when we can’t afford to keep laboring—physically, emotionally and mentally—against the status quo? More importantly, what about those of us for whom there’s too much that is at stake, for whom taking direct action could jeopardise our well-being, perhaps even our lives? The burden of proof weighs heavily on victims and survivors, even more so if they are persons of colour and/or queer. Maybe it’s time to stop asking why the most vulnerable of us are sometimes hesitant to take direct action, and to start seeing what happens when we do, what we risk losing. Our tragedy is the tragedy of our lived embodiment and its histories.
As British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed points out in her book “The Promise of Happiness,” “The desire to move beyond suffering in reconciliation, the very will to ‘be over it’ by asking others to ‘get over it,’ means that those who persist in their unhappiness become causes of the unhappiness of many. Their suffering becomes transformed into our collective disappointment that we cannot simply put such histories behind us. Ethics cannot be about moving beyond pain toward happiness or joy without imposing new forms of suffering on those who do not or cannot move in this way.”
The capacity to experience unfettered optimism and strength in the face of affliction is contingent on having the time, capital and freedom required for it. Feelings such as helplessness and complacency seem to rush like an underground river beneath the surface of an age that seems to be getting bleaker and bleaker with time—after all, our millennial understanding of the world has become increasingly shaped by extreme precarity. The surfeit of bad news, demoralisations and distractions, on both local and international levels, has driven some of us to the point of exhaustion. Those of us who are too tired to fight back are forced to lower the bar for what we deem normal and acceptable, as a way to cope.
In Malta, there exists a very real rise in abuse and hate crime, our statistics on domestic violence against women are some of the most alarming in Europe, our blanket ban on abortion continues to violate the most fundamental of our health and reproductive rights. Excuse us if we don’t wake up every morning believing that blind optimism can combat these toxic realities. The ideal of the woman who has it all—self-love, great sex, economic success—feels like a packaged lie. Sometimes we just want to be as miserable as we please.
In Malta, there exists a very real rise in abuse and hate crime, our statistics on domestic violence against women are some of the most alarming in Europe, our blanket ban on abortion continues to violate the most fundamental of our health and reproductive rights. Excuse us if we don’t wake up every morning believing that blind optimism can combat these toxic realities.
This is why despair is justifiable. And it’s often this feeling that first gets dismissed and invalidated by a white liberal feminist “lean in” ideology that views women as the makers of their own success. The truth is that there are no polarities, no easy sides that can be taken, and the inextricable messiness of lived experience isn’t always the most palatable to a shade of corporate feminism that answers to the powers that be.
When we can’t live up to the demands of marketed empowerment, when being fearless is too much of an effort, when we can’t push ourselves to work just a little bit harder, we’re shamed. We’re told we’re responsible for the failure of our own emancipation. Ahmed writes, “The affirmative turn creates a distinction between good and bad feelings that presumes bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive. Bad feelings are seen as oriented toward the past, as a kind of stubbornness that ‘stops’ the subject from embracing the future.”
Within the paradigms of a networked online feminism, an academically-informed response to the alienating demands of contemporary culture has been conceived by Audrey Wollen, a feminist theorist and visual artist based in LA. Wollen uses social media, primarily Instagram, to formulate what she calls “Sad Girl Theory,” namely a theory which presents the notion of sadness as a form of power. Based on the idea that female sadness isn’t a singular experience to be ashamed of, but a collective feeling that can ultimately have its own empowering attributes, Sad Girl Theory opens up a new history of activism and re-stages “revolt” as something that can be performed on our own bodies.
Wollen’s argument is based on the view that the self-destructive behavior of “girls” (a term she’s determined to semantically and culturally reclaim) has been discounted from the histories of resistance and activism, and typically witnessed and categorised as an act of passivity. She proposes that girls’ sorrow can be re-framed and re-historicised as an act of political protest, and brings to attention the fact that, in actuality, girls have been using their own malaise as a tool for agency and revolt for centuries. “The history of girls is the history of sorrow, from the very beginning,” Wollen says in an interview. “The stereotype of the hysterical girl, driven mad by sorrow, is used to warn girls: don’t turn out like her, don’t be a drag, don’t complain, don’t go crazy. If we all collectively admitted that being a girl sucks in this world right now, that it is scary and sad, that these are unlivable, unacceptable, conditions: what then? Something would have to change.”
Resistance, when typified in masculine terms, is often limited to a spectrum of activism that’s violent and riotous and that, basically, excludes the possibility of sorrow as a gesture of liberation. In a sense, patriarchal ideals of revolution have remained unchallenged throughout history, and it’s only by asserting suffering (already pervasive in girl culture) as a scene of protest that tactics of activism, violence and agency can be redefined. “Sadness is not narcissistic or foolish: it is an informed, rational, articulate, and embodied response to a devastating set of circumstances,” Wollen insists.
Resistance, when typified in masculine terms, is often limited to a spectrum of activism that’s violent and riotous and that, basically, excludes the possibility of sorrow as a gesture of liberation.
Ultimately, what needs to be reversed is the impulse behind the rhetoric of empowerment that places an extreme and unreasonable burden of responsibility on the female individual—the tyrannical reign of the “empowered” woman that’s being propagated by the current marketable and mainstream form of feminism. In fact, according to both Wollen and Ahmed’s reasoning, for those women who have tried but failed to be happy, the cry for women’s emancipation can function as a form of oppression. In other words, oppression and suffering are inextricably related to the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and the ways in which we react to this difficult situation aren’t necessarily self-involved or shallow, but can actually open up alternative possibilities for our bodies, identities and lives to participate in appropriate and purposeful acts of protest.
Of course, sadness and the other “girly stuff” that are commonly regarded as being facets of the “softer” side of human emotion—often associated with aspects such as nakedness, bodies, trauma, alienation, intimacy, tenderness—are susceptible to commodification, and have, in fact, been consistently commodified throughout history. American poet and mid-century queen of Sad Girls Sylvia Plath once wrote, “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars.”
Nothing quite excites a crowd like a woman getting confessional, and nothing quite sells like good, old female trauma. We’ve all, at some point, willingly or by chance, seen pictures of Britney as a self-fashioned gamine with a shaved head, brandishing an umbrella at the paparazzi. It’s an image that has come to represent an important event in popular culture where girlishness and hysteria intersected. We witnessed her shed her “cuteness” for a tender grotesqueness, and this challenged any straightforward and systematic commodification of femininity.
Then there’s been Taylor Swift, captured sitting alone on a boat in the Bahamas, right after having been dumped by Harry Styles with whom she’d been vacationing. The paparazzied photo showed her with her hands firmly placed on her lap, staring into the void (in actuality, she was wearing a dark pair of sunglasses but we couldn’t imagine her being anything but blank-eyed behind them). In her demeanour we recognised the glazed-over expression that we all feel when our heads are left reeling from any sudden, inexplicable happening.
Yet another instance that I consider monumental, in the long line of female hearts that have been pulled apart by and subjected to public inspection, came about with Beyoncé’s release of her visual album Lemonade. It sent people rushing to social media and gossip sites like the inevitability of tides. The majority kept asking one question, “Who was ‘Becky with the good hair?’” The question alluded to a lyric that Beyoncé sings in one of the songs of the album, “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair.” Among rumours that she had been cheated on by her husband Jay-Z (which the rapper himself confirmed in a later interview), claims about who “Becky” was or could be were flying everywhere, albeit all, unsurprisingly, lacking proof.
We can identify other seemingly arbitrary, yet significant, events in which female emotion was prodded, poked and gawked at, like an all-too-worn out heart laying open on a surgeon’s table. The inescapable reality for us is that female feeling can and will be consumed on a mass scale. Rules are to be followed and terms negotiated. We can’t feel too much, we must feel just enough. Without the mitigating factor of her unthreatening girlishness, Britney became too dangerous for society and eventually was redirected towards the more conventional route of the female pop star. Let this be a lesson to us all who think we are allowed to have free rein on our feelings.
The inescapable reality for us is that female feeling can and will be consumed on a mass scale. Rules are to be followed and terms negotiated.
The relentless depiction of the feeling girl as a fully-weaponized asset may seem disturbing. Regarding this issue, American poet and translator Ariana Reines raises concerns and claims that the female body exists as “a battleground upon which neurosis, phobias, somatizations, depression, and anxiety each sound a retreat [but] nobody has yet really grasped what is happening or what is at stake.”
In the earlier days of her career, Britney released the single “Lucky,” the video of which tells the story of a famous movie star named Lucky, played by Britney herself, who despite seemingly having it all—fame, wealth, beauty—is truly lonely and unhappy on the inside. “And they say / She’s so lucky, she’s a star / But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking / If there’s nothing missing in my life / Then why do these tears come at night?” Britney sings as the camera zooms in on her teary eyes and perfectly mascara-stained cheeks. Here is the contemporary female subject whose face and, by implication, body have become the “bearer” of all meaning—both signs and symptoms of a kind of war of affects where sadness seems to be directly produced by (and productive of) particular economic relations—in this case those relating to the film star Lucky, and by extension to Britney Spears, the pop star.
The trajectory of this kind of analysis is not exactly new—it descends from a vast feminist literature on embodiment, affect and labour that can be traced along a line of the tragic queens that have populated history since the beginning of time (in a literal sense if we’re to take the genesis of the Sad Girl to be Eve, as in, Adam’s). Our histories have been placed beside each other under the guise of our shared womanhood. Sometimes this hollows out our feelings. Sometimes it hollows out our works. Very often, and more crucially, our lives.
Sometimes, when we’re told off for feeling too much and told to feel less, the only option we’re left with is to feel more. In a poem called “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson records the end of a love affair. In two particular lines from the poem that make me shiver, Carson writes, “It pains me to record this, / I am not a melodramatic person.” The moment we announce pain, we feel the need to disavow it. It’s demanded from us to admit that it hurts, as long as we say that we hate admitting it. All this is compromised by the fact that speaking about our wounds, ultimately, wounds us. It pains me to record this. At the end of it all, a woman becomes entirely wound.
The moment we announce pain, we feel the need to disavow it. It’s demanded from us to admit that it hurts, as long as we say that we hate admitting it.
In truth, global misogyny has always been more suspicious of a wounded woman than a raging one. I’m aware that such a statement might raise a few eyebrows in the corporate feminism department, but that is precisely why I’m convinced that it’s accurate. Sad Girls have been locked up, silenced and sidelined for centuries for, well, being sad. That fact in itself surely tells us something about how easily those in power feel threatened by (what they consider to be) female despondency, the unpredictability of a woman’s “stillness.”
After all, from within the confines of a sanatorium, Zelda Fitzgerald still managed to make her husband Scott feel aggravated—never mind the fact that he’d been the one who had had her committed. Trapped in the hospital, she furiously wrote her novel “Save Me the Waltz” in just under six weeks—a semi-autobiographical account of her tumultuous marriage with Scott. He was outraged when he read it and found out she’d drawn heavily on her own life. To him, her life had been his to write, he’d used verbatim excerpts from her personal diaries and letters in his own work, and he’d been planning to use more of it. He forced her to revise her work, to edit out the material that he wished to use for his own novel, “Tender is the Night.” Zelda didn’t have the choice to want out of the trap of being her husband’s muse. We can only imagine what she’d made him come to terms with in the, now lost, original manuscript as it’d existed before the extensive revisions, what mirror she’d held up to his bitter and burned out soul, what he’d read in her writing that had made him feel so irked.
Sometimes it feels like men don’t fear anything as much as they fear us embracing an ambient fatalism, inculcated by the moment in which we come to the full realisation that being a woman in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is. The Sad Girl owes nothing and this is what makes her dangerous. This is also why being called a Sad Girl and calling oneself a Sad Girl are usually two vastly different experiences. In the first case, it is often an act of degradation, in the second, an act of reclamation, autonomy and pride. These two archetypes can be seen as contradictory, but there is much to glean from their interplay.
Sadness isn’t a good look for us—it doesn’t sell women’s toiletries or all-access memberships to exclusive spaces. By chipping away at the gloss of positivity and optimism that coats said consumables, we are, fundamentally, engaging in a process that makes the invisible visible, and, hence, exposing the ugly and oppressive politics of that invisibility. This explains why the refusal to be overjoyed about one’s own womanhood is not an act of narcissistic panic but an enlightened and active reaction.
Willingly “leaning out”—to appropriate Sheryl Sandberg’s infamous term—is not about discarding calls for empowerment. On the contrary, it ensures that our unimaginably painful experiences as women are no longer misread as symptoms of narcissistic panic or failure, to be medically diagnosed and politically dismissed, but as a ways of speaking truth to power. This is in line with Ahmed’s belief that “we need to think about happiness as more than a feeling that should be overcome” and that “unhappiness might offer a pedagogic lesson on the limits of the promise of happiness.”
“Love Island” has been branded “cruel” for traumatising its contestants for the sake of entertainment. In the case of the fallout between Amy and Curtis, for instance, it was reported by the tabloid media that the show’s producers had ordered a fellow contestant, Maura Higgins (with whom Amy had built a trusting friendship), to pursue Curtis, so as to further ramp up Amy’s agony and to instigate a love triangle that would offer the show’s consumers even more dramatic viewing.
It’s no secret that those behind “Love Island”—or any other type of reality television, for that matter—constantly tweak the format of the show, according to script. This, of course, becomes a particularly concerning issue when the contestants’ hopes and feelings are manipulated. “Manufacturing heartbreak may make dramatic viewing, but we question the value of this as it demeans both the contestant and the viewer, and gives a false picture of relationships,” Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of “Sane,” a British mental health charity declared in an official statement released to the media.
At the root of this problem there’s an obvious corporate bias that profits off of people’s personal work and information, a fact that hasn’t escaped the show critics’ attention. Tom Whyman at The Outline has drawn attention to the predominantly emotional labour that this kind of entertainment in the age of late capitalism demands, both from its participants and its viewers. “‘Love Island’ thus allows us to escape work, mostly guiltlessly: by showing other people doing an impression of not working, while actually working incredibly hard,” he writes.
However, this shouldn’t keep us away from critiquing those issues from within the medium itself. If anything, it makes our relationship with the representation of women in the media even more nuanced. At the end of the day, does it really matter if the conditions for the creation of these scenarios are manufactured by an outsider? Does that make our empathy for Amy in her distress any less valid?
French novelist Gustave Flaubert once famously proclaimed, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” admitting that he was what he had made. His novel’s main character, Emma Bovary, also finds recognition in someone else’s narratives, in the heroines of the romances she reads. Fiction isn’t real, but we so often find our real selves there. Of course, things can get messy. Madame Bovary, in the end, kills herself. The fact of it, of any fiction—be it Scott’s use of Zelda’s life writings, be it a twenty-first century reality show that manipulates the outcomes of real human emotion—is that the conditions for its creation often have tragic consequences.
Was our imaginary posturing, our moment of “c’est moi,” while Amy was getting her heart broken by Curtis, complicit with the show-makers’ decision to offer its viewers a spectacle of female pain with which to empathise? In other words, when we see ourselves in another’s pain, does it amplify or limit our capacity for empathy? At what point does recognition turn into an erasure, a return to obliterating sameness?
In her work “Illness and Metaphor,” philosopher and writer Susan Sontag traces this “nihilistic and sentimental” logic that finds appeal in female suffering back to the nineteenth century, and maps it largely onto illness. Sontag writes that, in the nineteenth century, “sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous” and both were coveted. “The melancholy creature was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart” and sickness was “a becoming frailty… symbolised an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity [that] became more and more the ideal look for women.” Ultimately, “it was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad […], that is, to be powerless.”
In the nineteenth century, “sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous” and both were coveted. “The melancholy creature was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart” and sickness was “a becoming frailty… symbolised an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity [that] became more and more the ideal look for women.” Ultimately, “it was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad […], that is, to be powerless.”
Art critic John Berger analyses the historical tendency to imagine new ways of hurting women in relation to the representation of women in the history of art, emphasising how women are always looked at or acted upon. He declares, in his most well-known work “Ways of Seeing,” “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others—and particularly how she appears to men—is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.”
This kind of objectification of women in the media and in art essentially centres around the implication of the female as vulnerable. Having been placed in the position of the object for centuries, the woman has served as a hollow receptacle for the onlooker’s desires and control, and it’s precisely this female powerlessness that’s presented as appealing.
Amy and Curtis’s moment on the villa’s rooftop before their final parting signalled a conflict resolution that resorted to tenderness. And I like to think that what makes that resolution full of radical possibility is precisely that tenderness. Taking tenderness, or the absence of tenderness, as a central problematic has political value. Tenderness is a finicky thing, it must be given, but it also needs to be received, the broken heart demands it as its final transaction. “I have to let you go […], I can’t heal living in the same house at you,” Amy professed.
Of course, it’s right to resist the obligation to be tender when that obligation is rooted in unjust expectations. Last year, the Internet blamed American pop star Ariana Grande for having caused, with her actions, the tragic death by overdose of her once-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller. Fingers were pointed at the fact that she’d broken up with Miller while he’d been struggling with substance abuse, that she’d been publicly showing too much of her newfound joy in her then-blooming relationship with SNL comedian Pete Davidson. By being too happy, she hadn’t been sad enough and, hence, couldn’t be tender enough towards Miller. This case marked a distinctive moment in pop culture where sadness and tenderness were inextricably pitted against a happiness that was read as violent simply because it was being experienced by a woman. The accusation, essentially, was that she’d moved on with her life too quickly, and was, thus, partly responsible for him not getting clean. As though overcoming addiction were her battle, not his, to fight.
The truth is that there’s no law in the world that demands that we constantly take care of everyone’s pain, especially when such expectations feed into our culture’s myth that a woman should carry the burden of being held responsible for her male partner’s self-destructive choices. Yet, it’s consistently demanded that we do so. Tenderness can be requested, exploited and monetised. However, this doesn’t necessarily strip it of meaning. Rather, thinking about the systematic expectation and urge with which those in power ask us to be tender reveals that it has, in fact, a radically political potential.
To be or not to be tender isn’t just any question that we can ask ourselves, but an acknowledgement of our right to refuse to owe it to those who assume they deserve it at the expense of our happiness. True tenderness, thus, comes from a position of power, precisely because it can be given freely. More than that, it bestows dignity on both those who give it and those who receive it, regardless of their social, economic or political standing, positioning us in the world as true levellers.
To be or not to be tender isn’t just any question that we can ask ourselves, but an acknowledgement of our right to refuse to owe it to those who assume they deserve it at the expense of our happiness. True tenderness, thus, comes from a position of power, precisely because it can be given freely.
A disclaimer: what I’m trying to cultivate is neither blind servitude nor a resurrection of the “Angel in the House” that the twentieth-century English writer, Virginia Woolf, rightly, felt it was her duty as a woman writer to “kill”. On the contrary, a twenty-first-century tenderness is radical because it requires an imaginative and emotional intelligence that ultimately both justifies and effectively weaponises our collective pain. This sentiment parallels Ahmed’s observation that “if injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there […], unhappiness is not our endpoint […], if anything the experience of being outside the life-worlds created by passing happy objects around gets us somewhere.”
There’s a lot that one can say about the problematic overlap between the clinical complexities of mental health and the profitable aesthetics of a “luxuriant illness.” The hyper-girly aesthetic of Britney’s “Lucky,” with its depiction of the Sad Girl—with perfectly brushed hair, glamorously lying supine on a velvety chaise longue—questionably implies that the real-life and very public breakdown that Britney went through midway through her career, and, by extension, the fortuitous and utter devastating realities of female suffering can be read through a performative lens. A recent online article published at Medium, written by Hannah Williams, celebrates the end of “The Reign of the Internet Sad Girl.”
A response to Rolling Stone’s exposé on Lana Del Rey’s aesthetic of sadness and to a “How to Be a Sad Girl” article published at The Toast, Williams’s article criticises the problematic hollowness of the Sad Girl phenomenon. It rightly points out that the highly-middle class aesthetic currency of the Sad Girl fetishises and makes desirable sadness, while dismissing concerted attempts at addressing the very serious and complex realities of mental health problems. It also highlights the exclusivity and privilege that a performative sadness necessitates—women of colour and women who lack the economic and social capital are ignored and disenfranchised. “Nobody wants to like your crying selfie if it’s about how you literally can’t afford to buy food, or if you don’t fit the mold of Western beauty standards. Then you’re just a woman, crying. You’re not part of a movement,” Williams writes.
As a “movement,” the Sad Girl phenomenon tends to herald conventionally attractive, white cis women, who have always been allowed to do what they want with their body in relation to the way it looks precisely because of the way it looks. The misconception it presents is that we all hold the same stakes in the way we present ourselves in society and online. The choice to be a Sad Girl isn’t equally available to all, different women experience shame and violence for it differently. Similar to other “body-positivity” looks that aren’t informed by an intersectional ethos, such as “free the nipple” and body hair positivity, the Sad Girl movement privileges certain bodies over others, resorts to codifying violent standards rather than challenging them, and discriminates certain women for not being “girly” enough or in the “right” way.
However, the all-too-feeling woman remains pervasive both as a social reality and as a cultural text. As Ahmed claims, categorically dismissing sadness “[allows] historical forms of injustice to disappear […], the demand that we be affirmative makes those histories disappear by reading them as a form of melancholia,” and, hence, the pervasiveness of sadness as a defining female trait has an inherent radicality that goes beyond its status as an aestheticised commodity.
The fact that we keep coming back to the woman as a feeling entity, despite the sheer and uncommunicable amount of violence enacted upon her body throughout history, is significant. In a world that routinely and thoughtlessly violates and traumatises the most vulnerable, the idea of feeling as something that hovers somewhere between the aesthetic and the phenomenological is not just a fad but a necessity. It reminds us that our bodies, by the sheer fact of their existence, are terrifying and beautiful things, and that the people who seek to limit and control the range of our experiences are, in truth, scared of our capacity to be unruly, unclean and unknowable, even when we are seemingly apathetic.
This year my experience of watching “Love Island” has been, so far, weirdly arduous. Maybe it’s because it feels like I’m watching a sped up microcosm of the feelings that it has lately become more and more strenuous to keep track of in real life. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m just going to go ahead and say that the excess of bad news in the present era leaves me terror-stricken for the simple reason that it both fuels and drains our collective feelings, and the prospect of our hearts hardening to the point of not feeling anything is starting to sound less and less ludicrous, and more like the inevitable result of evolutionary survival. After all, biochemical interventions into love and relationships aren’t just some far-off speculation, as a soon-to-be-published book by Stanford University Press explains.
I like to think that I’ve let go of past heartaches dutifully, in the right way. And as self-congratulatory as that may sound, it gives me an awareness of my own preservation. The story goes: in the aftermath of heartbreak, as much as everything feels painfully sharp, you’ll be better for having gone through it. And I’ve learnt that the act of recognising your feelings in another’s—be it Gentileschi’s while she’s being tortured with thumbscrews at her rapist’s trial, Zelda’s, as she’s throwing herself down a flight of marble stairs at a party because Scott had been flirting with another woman, or Amy Hart’s, as she’s having her heart torn apart on television—doesn’t make those feelings less legitimate. Harbouring that openness helps you see a sense of connectedness, which is, I suppose, one way of being tender. Towards others and towards oneself.
“When there’s an onus on performative, calculated vulnerability, there’s no reward for sincerity,” the Medium article quoted earlier states, but assuming that the performative detracts us from the sincere also means invalidating the feelings of those women who’ve had no choice but to be performative with the most sincere of their feelings—just so they could be seen.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Ophelia’s mad with grief. She wails, moans, drowns herself. Hamlet’s also mad but, regardless of whether he’s putting on an act or not, he’s allowed to be an angst-ridden philosopher. Tenderness doesn’t just signal a tolerance for sincerity, it also means attending to another’s sufferings, even when they aren’t pleasant to look at. When we’re asked to witness Ophelia’s mad scene, after having comfortably kept our eyes fixed on an introspective and ruminative Hamlet for so long, it becomes our duty to labour and cultivate a tenderness towards her.
When Ophelia poignantly interrupts the male gaze as she bursts into fragments of song, she connects with the other Sad Girls in history, fictional or otherwise, who Ahmed calls “affect aliens.” Affect aliens pervert or distort the image of an object that’s almost universally recognised to offer various promises of fulfilment and pleasure.
The deliberately disruptive aesthetic and affective image—whether it takes the form of Ophelia with dishevelled hair or that of Britney with a shaved head—restores a girl’s power, even when there’s the perpetual threat of annihilation looming close. The girl’s artistic and political choice to disrupt public comfort is a decision that undermines habituated and interiorised systems of power—rudeness and awkwardness, even when aestheticised, can be a form of protest. With lines such as “Young men will do’t if they come to’t / By Cock, they are to blame,” Ophelia embraces the Sad Girl aesthetic as a subversive protest tool, notices the potential and actual co-optation of the Sad Girl aesthetic into pastiche by men, and in a curious, quasi-dialectical turn, parodies that very pastiche she originally triggered.
I use the term Sad Girl with equal parts sincerity and salt, with a nod to her rich and often painful history and a wink to the women who pout and sigh from the fringes and insist on being their weirdest and most wondrous selves. The fact and fiction of the Sad Girl are inextricably linked and each informs the other and always has. She is an evocative and influential archetype that can encompass many different facets—she lives in a tower, she’s treated badly by a wicked step-mother in fairy tales, she’s the wicked step-mother, she thrives in the plotlines of novels, films, paintings and pop songs, she’s persecuted for being a witch in Salem, she gets her heart broken on reality television. She’s gorgeous and hideous and elusive and ubiquitous.
If this all sounds complicated, it’s probably because it is. The Sad Girl has been a target of misunderstanding at best, and persecution at worst. She’s a pariah, a persona non grata to either “fix” or discard, she’s always at risk, but nevertheless she persists. The fact that the resurgence of feminism and the Sad Girl are ascending at the same time is no coincidence—the two are reflections of each other. And this begs the question: why? Why do Sad Girls matter? Why are they everywhere?
The Sad Girl has been a target of misunderstanding at best, and persecution at worst. She’s a pariah, a persona non grata to either “fix” or discard, she’s always at risk, but nevertheless she persists.
The truth is, the more I work with the Sad Girl, the more complex she becomes—try to pin her down and she’ll only recede further into her deepest feelings. I do know this for sure though—show me your Sad Girls, and I’ll show you your feelings about women. Our Sad Girls say as much about us as they do about anything else, for better or for worse. She is a vessel that contains our conflicting feelings about female power, our fear and desire for it. She is a figure that agitates the status quo, and this fact has been, both her loss and her gain. She shows us how to tap into our own deepest feelings—and that’s why we need her now more than ever.
The question of female disenchantment and the interruption of the male gaze is a paradoxical and complex one, where a sense of agency is restored when the girl “acts out” her role as the sad object. Ambushing men with our compulsive yet calculated behaviour is a way of telling them that we’ve had enough. It means confronting them with the harsh conclusions that we’ve come to—conclusions, which, arguably, the following words of Maura from “Love Island” can be considered to effectively sum up, “Am I an attention-seeker? Am I cringy? Am I OTT? You’re a prick.”
Tenderness, sadness, pain—the same voices that demand that we move itinerant from one feeling to the next—are the same ones participating in their subordination. If, on the one hand, contemporary T-shirt feminism equates female rage with power, on the other hand it’s tenderness that gets demanded from us when masculinity feels threatened. It’s a strange state of affairs, one in which the “softer side” of female feeling is simultaneously feared and desired.
On the one hand, contemporary T-shirt feminism equates female rage with power, on the other hand it’s tenderness that gets demanded from us when masculinity feels threatened. It’s a strange state of affairs, one in which the “softer side” of female feeling is simultaneously feared and desired.
Technically, it’s a set up: if we don’t feel ecstatic about our femininity, we’re not doing enough to empower ourselves and each other, if we wallow in our pain, we’re too self-involved and, if we’re too aggressive, we’re not empathetic enough. By returning to Wollen’s theory, we can understand that such tensions are bound to remain forever irresolvable. “Once you’ve accepted that you are going to be affirming a sexist cliché no matter what you do, because those clichés are designed to swallow our entire existence, you can do what you actually feel like. It’s dangerous to have your radical politics caught in a cycle of reaction—trying to ‘disprove’ the patriarchy, as if the patriarchy actually has some logic or evidence behind it,” she states.
The discourses surrounding our histories, our future, our words and our bodies are becoming increasingly convergent and aspects of tenderness and pain seem to be spilling over into each other. Perhaps, one of the most notable mantras to be passed down through generations of feminism is that “the personal is political.” Meanwhile, in our home country, our trees are being cut down, we’re buying into more noise, more dust, more of the synthetic and painful aesthetics that make up our idea of progress. On the greater global scale of things, we’re constantly reminded that we’re on the brink of genocide by climate change, by nuclear weaponry, by the sheer cruelty and absurdity (albeit predictability) of Trumpism, Brexit and any other relatively recent happenings that are making us more angsty, and even more uncreative.
What’s perhaps more crucially revealed is an ongoing process of violent institutionalisation. It’s the institutionalisation of action as assertive, unequivocal and often aggressive—qualities that have, in the history of political protest, overwhelmingly been defined as masculine. There isn’t much that aligns the suprastructure of the violent and destructive forces in our contemporary society with the female pain that throbs beneath it. There are feelings, however, like tenderness that level the ground for both. Tenderness is a protest campaign against institutionalised amnesia.
Maria Theuma is a PhD student within the Department of English at the University of Malta. She likes drinking Bloody Marys, watching figure skating and reading online forum threads about JonBenét Ramsey.